Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Divorce

When most people think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) they think of people who have come out of a war zone, tragic accident or some other life threatening event. It doesn’t occur to most of us that divorce can also lead to this same condition.

Jennifer’s story – the divorce

Speaking to a close friend who is a divorced single mom, she told me about her experience of divorce and the onset of PTSD. Jennifer sat down and explained that after 10 years of marriage, it was “not so suddenly” over. There were many years prior to the end of the marriage that were abusive, not in the physical sense but certainly emotionally.

As a Christian, she felt it was her duty to God to make the marriage work. Out of the 10 years of marriage, all but maybe one of them was shear self torture, but she stuck it out because she felt it was her calling to love her husband and surrender her personal desires to what she felt God wanted her to do. Going back and forth trying to do the will of God and being beaten down emotionally by the man who promised to love and cherish her eventually wore her down.

Jennifer had three counselors (both Christian and non-Christian), all telling her that she needed to leave the relationship. She finally gave up and walked away with her son in tow. She felt she had failed God, failed her son, and didn’t have the strength to start life all over.

Lashing out

I could see the pain in her eyes as she talked about the first year of separation. It wasn’t hard to imagine what a nightmare it was between losing everything that she had, her home, her job, her friends, worldly possessions, to the back and forth of custody battles. Through this nightmarish process she found she was no longer the person she once was.

Jennifer found herself boiling over for what would normally be seen by most people as very minor offenses. Any change or unexpected event shook her world and she found herself panicking over simple things like needing to go to the grocery store.

She told me that the first week she had moved in with her father. Her sister had called at the last minute asking her to babysit. Jennifer said she felt angry and betrayed. After all, didn’t they understand that she was the one in pain and needed support. Her thoughts instantly negative, here her sister was calling not to see how Jennifer was doing but because she wanted Jennifer to do her a favor.

Lack of sleep was the norm, tossing and turning each night. When she finally would fall asleep, it wasn’t long before she was waking up with troubling thoughts racing through her head that she simply couldn’t turn off.

Gone was Jennifer’s joy and spontaneous nature. She lived in constant fear wondering what disaster was coming next. She avoided her family and didn’t seek out new friendships because she no longer trusted anyone. She lived in her little closed in world and wanted no distractions or disturbances to the precarious balance of her day. She was socially unfunctional.

As I listened to her tell her story, I could see the remembered pain in her eyes. She spoke about her sister being confused and hurt because she would become hostile anytime her sister would introduce an unplanned event or ask a favor of her. She told how she had not been behaving in her typical friendly fashion, eager to help and was afraid she would never be who she once was, someone she liked. She also felt guilty that she didn’t want her nephews around because it added noise and chaos to her day. The guilt she felt over her feelings and actions towards her family only made things worse.

Seeking help – diagnosis of PTSD

Eventually she said she found the courage to seek help, to try to figure out why she was behaving so poorly. Jennifer was shocked when after one conversation with a psychologist he informed her that she was experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder! It had never occurred to her.

Once “armed” with this new information, she spoke with her sister (who was the brunt of her behavior) to apologize and explain why she had been behaving so badly. She asked her sister if she could help by giving her some notice when she would going to need help with the kids and not to take it personally if she was noticeably upset. Jennifer also asked her sister to give her a few days to process the request so that instead of being a disruption to her plans, it would become a part of her schedule.

Healing after divorce and PTSD

With this simple diagnosis and a course of action to minimize the stress, she was able to get rid of the guilt since she no longer had to see the pain in her sister’s face. Jennifer now understood and could manage her reactions better with the extra time that her family graciously allowed to mentally process and incorporate changes.

I was curious to know about Jennifer’s relationship with God since He was very important in her life. Jennifer explained that she came to accept and forgive herself for the failure of her marriage. She knew and accepted that God was not shocked by this event. She explained to me that ultimately, He gave had given her what she asked for, a child that she could raise in a way that would honor Him. Since her now ex-husband was very much against her faith, being divorced has made raising her son to love God much easier.

It was slow, but life did improve for Jennifer, and while even five years later she says she’s not fully back to her “old self, ” the moments of panic are just that…a moment. I can see the joy in her eyes now as her confidence and self worth has returned and, as she says, “life is good!”

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